Closed Captioned For The Thinking Impaired

Thursday, January 3, 2008

A Year in Review: 2007's Restaurant Round-up: A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of tapas, it was the age of charcuterie... it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair... we had burger bars by celebrity chefs, we had neighborhood joints that you had to make reservations 2 months in advance for the privilege of eating in.

That Dickens, dude, how could he know what the food scenes in NYC and San Francisco would be like in 2007. Now that's genius!

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
Charles Dickens, Could he be writing a review on Spruce....hmmm?

Of course, New York and San Francisco are much more alike than late 18th century Paris and London were, thank goodness. Although, if things continue along the path they've started in San Francisco, one may have to flee to Manhattan to escape the guillotine for the bourgeois crime of eating foie gras once the California ban of the decadently tasty liver takes effect. The food nazis will be in full force and will make Madame Defarge and her band of terrorists look like traffic cops.

I'm focusing on these two cities because they were home to most of the restaurants that I enjoyed eating at this year. I should include Las Vegas in this round-up but I'm too lazy and while I may be missing major food industry movements in other areas, who cares? Ignorance is bliss; and what I don't know won't hurt my tastebuds.

That being said my top three meals of 2007 took place in the aforementioned three cities. These meals were all incredible with impeccable service, wonderful ambiance and truly haute cuisine. They led the other 1100 or so meals I ate this year by a very wide margin which is why it was so easy for me to limit my list to three especially since I didn't make it to French Laundry or Per Se this year (what up wit dat?). I've reviewed two of the three elsewhere in the archives which you can read by using the blog search widget located in the right column of this page.

Here are my top 3 restaurants with links to their websites:

  1. Le Bernardin in New York took the top spot edging out its contenders by the purity of its pedigree. This is a restaurant that focuses almost exclusively on seafood and yet offers courses of such distinction and variety within that specialty that I never missed the other proteins.
  2. Cyrus in Healdsburg was the runner-up with it's impressive staff of witty, knowledgeable servers who make you feel like honored guests in their home while serving meals that are stellar but accessible. It's like Sam's Bar in the series "Cheers", if Sam served food worthy of Two Michelin Stars and had replaced Carla with a caviar toting Dennis Miller.
  3. Joel Robuchon , an outpost of civility in the vast cultural desert that is Las Vegas, should earn top honors just by virtue of retaining such incredible culinary standards in a place like Vegas where most patrons who could actually afford the tasting menu at this serene gustatory temple would be just as happy stuffing their gullets at a $25.99 all you can eat lobster buffet before watching Danny Ganz perform his award-winning stand-up act. Oh, you've never heard of Danny Ganz? Consider yourself lucky. It's Vegas, after all, where Elvis impersonators have their own category in the phone book.
Here goes my take on 2007:

The trends in both cities include enormous spaces with Jurassic-sized bars in unique settings, kaleidoscope-like mixed drinks and mammoth community tables for the young and the networking to enjoy.

Yep, the cocktail is king again & most of the new joints supply those caramel peppermint soy martini drinkers with plenty of small plates and finger foods thus allowing the imbiber to keep one hand free at all times for easy texting on an iPhone.

Knives and forks may soon go the way of the dinosaur or maybe not. Especially since gargantuan portions of retro-homey comfort foods also have a place of prominence among the food cognoscenti in the Bay Area as it did with a barbecue craze raging in that island along the East River. How could two such distinct styles of eating both have equal footing at the same time? Who knows, but, in San Francisco we do have a reputation for tolerance especially for the wild and wacky.

Sustainably produced products continue to make in-roads in the mainstream foodie culture with many new restaurants going out of their way to show their clientele their concern for the environment by emphasizing their use of local organic purveyors. While this is not new to the Bay Area, Alice Waters started that revolution over 30 years ago, it is the first time restauranteurs have actively used it as a concept & marketing tool. Locavores and Ethicureans abound. I wouldn't be surprised to see them pop up on the ballot in this year's presidential elections as a subset of the Green Party. Michael Pollan for President!

Regional Italian & Southern Mediterranean foods are hot, hot, hot. We're not talking the risottos and falafels that your grandparents order in their local malls. We're talking pinzimonio, bottarga, manouri and Za'tar dusted meats. To paraphrase Tiny Tim, a character from another Dicken's classic, God bless us with guanciale, everyone.

Winebars are now as ubiquitous as taquerias but not as good.

Salts of all shapes and colors were foisted upon the restaurant goers of America, contributing to yet another generation of hypertensives.

Of course, this year marked the introduction of the mall food court in San Francisco's Westfield Center. We are finally partaking of that longstanding American tradition of culinary consumerism. Although, I guess the Yerba Buena Center could really claim that dubious honor. Maybe the James Beard Awards will have a new category next year "Best New Restaurant in a Food Court" with Bouchon Bakery Columbus Circle and Out the Door Slanted Door vying for top honors? Ya think?

Chapter 1: The best of the bunch of newbies in San Francisco:

Shots of Lobster Bisque from Pres A Vi

Pres A Vi:

While I've eaten here many times for both dinner & lunch, I never felt compelled to review it before now. A major oversight on my part that I aim to correct. I guess it's like being married to a beautiful woman, she's so familiar & accessible you just take her for granted.

View of the Dining Room from the Hostess Stand

I have never had a bad meal here, in fact, I have nothing short of very good food. While service used to be uneven, the front of the house has worked out the kinks and my dinner party of three was very happy with our server last week as were our dinner party of six the month before. It's an excellent place for large groups and entertaining guests from out of town because, while Pan-Pacific cuisine is stressed here, it's colossal menu, recently reformatted to include more traditional large plates, spans the globe and has something for everyone. Somehow through the miracle of Chef Kelly Degala's immense spirit of Aloha, the kitchen does everything well.

Executive Chef Kelly Degala

The space itself is spectacular. It is located in Lucas' ILM Letterman Complex and from outside is nearly indistinguishable from its neighbors. When you park in the underground garage and walk through the institutional halls to get to the restaurant, you have no idea what to expect. It feels like a visit to the dentist's office. But once you pass through those dark wide glass double doors, you know you're in the right place. The space is cavernous but cleverly designed into several seating areas that still manage to give the restaurant a sense of continuity. There's an enormous copper bar and cocktail lounge where patrons can wait for friends or make a night of it. The now ubiquitous community table is present and accounted for. An impressive wine cellar. Several banquettes and two tops; as well as an outdoor patio with peekabo views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Palace of the Fine Arts. I've enjoyed many lunches on that patio on a sunny afternoon.

Pres A Vi's Outdoor Patio

According to its website, Pres A Vi loosely translates to "captivated by wine"; it's more like captive of wine but let's not quibble. Wine is certainly an important part of the experience for this cousin of Va de Vi Bistro & Winebar in Walnut Creek. Flights of every kind of wine varietal are offered here and while we usually like to bring wines from our collection, Pres A Vi is a great place to try wines that you probably don't stock in your cellar. The prices are reasonable & priced according to the size of the pour: 3 oz, 6 oz or the by the bottle. Cocktails are also a hot ticket item here. They serve 25 special concoctions with names like Lip Venom and Zensational.

Pres A Vi's Copper Bar

Now we get to the best reason to go to Pres A Vi on a regular basis: the food! While it is not cutting edge haute cuisine, it is fresh delicious and expertly executed.
Dinner offers a plethora of yummies and there's not a clunker in the bunch which is why it's great to go with a large group so you can try a little of everything.
The house-baked bread basket is a meal in itself and while I try to avoid eating bread before dinner this variety of warm artisanal breads are too delectable to pass up.

The menu is divided into four categories: Cold, Hot, Main & Sides.

In the Cold menu, the standouts are the Hawaiian Ahi Tatare with its kukui nuts (I love saying the word kukui), meyer lemon zest, toasted sesame oil & shoyu served with amazing rice & black sesame crackers that look like glass sculptures designed by Dale Chihuly; the Endive Salad with peppery watercress, sweet crisp apples, creamy Cabrales blue cheese and finished with a luxurious smattering of Marcona almonds, an assault on all your senses & a very satisfying start; the Tuna Tataki is another good choice with its pickled jalapeno. One night the special was Hamachi Teradito, the sweet fatty fish melted in your mouth was precisely cut & served with a citrusy, spicy sauce of olive oil, chiles and ginger. Another night showcased a Sake-poached Foie Gras Terrine with a gingery foam and a smear of tropical fruit coulis.

The Hot menu offers a shot of Lobster Bisque topped with tobiko cream, it's like drinking a buttery sea; the Ahi Tempura Roll is always a winner with its crunchy shredded filo wrapping and ponzu, wasabi-orange cream; the Lechon is finger-licking good with its sweet & salty charred, unctuous Kurobuta pork belly, sweet rice cakes and pickled onion; the Butternut-Ricotta Ravioli is drowned in sherry brown butter nutty goodness, bringing out the sweet notes in the squash & cheese, the tang of the pecorino cuts through the richness of the sauce and the fried sage is an elegant touch that adds texture as well as herbal goodness. The Pomme Frites are a must for the table. The Duck Buns are a clever riff on Peking Duck that uses the traditional hoisin sauce but substitutes watercress and cilantro for the scallions and more interestingly substitutes gelatinous duck confit for the more traditional roasted duck. The Hokkaido Scallops are perfectly seared bits of heaven served over sauteed spinach with a beurre blanc, not groundbreaking but solid.

Main dishes are a new addition to the menu which had previously focused on small plates with a few larger ones as specials. The Tai Snapper with its spicy ginger cilantro vinaigrette & fermented black bean sauce is a spectacular presentation with the whole snapper deep fried and presented on its belly like it was swimming in the ocean of jasmine rice that it sits on. The miso-marinated Alaskan Cod in its dashi broth with seaweed salad, edamame & shiso has all the elegant restraint of the best Japanese food. Meat gets equally good treatment in the brontosaurus-like Seared Hanger Steak with its manly sides of creamed spinach, mashed potatoes, Matsutake mushroom ragout & fried shallots. One recent special featured Whole Australian Lobster released from its shell and served with an uni cream sauce over fresh pasta, the only fault I could find was the garnish of salmon roe whose assertive flavor unfortunately overwhelmed the delicate balance of the dish.

The Sides are just a nice variety of vegetables served family style meant to augment a small plate or share with the table like grilled baby bok choy with anchovy butter or Bloomsdale spinach with garlic, lemon and toybox tomatoes.

I have never had room for dessert here but I've seen them delivered to other tables and they look impressive. They also offer cheese selections but unfortunately I could never indulge. One day I may go there for lunch & order nothing but dessert and cheese tastings. I'm sure they are well done. Although that would mean passing up the wonderful salads and sandwiches that Chef Degala's kitchen offers. Lunch time is when you find many of Pacific Heights social set breaking bread.

In general, Pres A Vi caters to a fairly wide cross-section of San Francisco's population and the effect is loud in the extreme. You don't have to shout but you definitely need to project your voice to be heard. It's loud but it's also fun and energizing. It is not impossible to get into unlike other spots on my hit list and the food while not the most innovative or refined is as good as most. You'll find yourself going back again & again.


Exterior of Spruce

Spruce is not your typical neighborhood restaurant. Granted, Presidio Heights is not your typical neighborhood. I know; until recently I owned a home on Jackson and Spruce. Prior to Spruce, 3640 Sacramento Street had unsuccessfully been an ambitious Mexican restaurant, then empty, a ladies haberdashery, then empty, an unsuccessful French restaurant, then empty again. Also next to that space was an interior design shop that ultimately shut its doors, too. If ever a place was jinxed, it was that retail space between Spruce & Locust on Sacramento Street. Then along came a little team from Woodside's The Village Pub who in their infinite wisdom saw fit to combine both jinxed spaces and before you know it a SF legend was born.

Society mavens from far and near embraced it early with their interior designers, assistants and other infrastructees (a new word I've coined for the entourage that the average mansion dwellers must have to feel properly dressed for their day) in tow.

The last time I went there for dinner, on a Tuesday night in December, it was like being at our golf club grill, so many of our members were dining at Spruce that evening.

The Bar at Spruce

So while it undoubtedly caters to the neighborhood's needs in some ways (other than Garibaldi's & maybe Sociale there were no good local options for lunch or dinner), it is nearly impossible to get a table without making a reservation a month and a half in advance, unless you like to eat at 5:30 or 9:30. Lunch is slightly easier to get a table for & , of course, you can always sit at the bar or in "The Library". When all else fails you can get take-out at Spruce's "to go" shop.

Therein lies the problem. Spruce is like Sybil, the title character to both a book and a movie made in the 1970's starring Sally Fields, who suffered from the severest form of schizophrenia: multiple personality disorder. I admire Chef Mark Sullivan for trying to be all things to all people but I have tried it in all it's incarnations and while the food is good, sometimes excellent, the experience can disappoint unless you choose to eat in the dining room during lunch or dinner service which I believe should be the main focus of this restaurant.

The decor is by William and Sonoma Home. Chocolate brown mohair & mocha leather seating; gleaming polished nickel & marble finishes on the counters & tables. The interior is good enough to eat. Very minimalist. Tres sleek, tres chic. Glass barriers segregate the main dining room from the bar and the private dining salon but still make the space feel unified. Over-scaled art work graces the walls. The "Library" consists of a couple of low banquettes and arm chairs with books strategically strewn on coffee tables in front of the plate glass windows that face both the small courtyard and Sacramento Street. Presumably for all the fashion-minded to show off their Jimmy Choos and Manolos while imbibing one of the many varieties of Cosmopolitans or wines by the glass offered by the young & aloof bartenders.

In early fall, I lunched on a creamy corn chowder with salt cod that could make me wax poetic about the virtues of the sweet & the salty combined. Then a Salad Nicoise with Seared Albacore that was somehow almost confit like in its texture. How he got the sear and the melting texture I'll never know , haricot vert, fingerling potatoes, an olive tapenade, garlic aioli and roasted peppers. It was a simple, classic salad that was delicious, if not earth-shatteringly edgy.

Spruce offers a bar menu between 2pm & 5pm. Unless, you're in need of a quick pick-me-up after a tension filled session with your hairdresser, I would avoid visiting the restaurant during those hours. The menu is extremely limited & only offers a very mediocre overdressed flavorless Caesar salad, some cured olives, a burger and absolutely no real service between lunch & dinner.

When I had the misfortune of going there at 3pm one day, despite being seated in the bar area by a very cheerful hostess and being the only person in the restaurant at the time, it took 20 minutes and several attempts at attracting a server's attention until I was finally shown the bar menu. I think the bartender may have been too busy admiring his own reflection in the glossy surfaced bar to deign to serve a patron. Everyone else was either between shifts or busy setting up for dinner to tend to me. Don't go then.

A trip to the take out shop was similarly disappointing. The housemade charcuterie that I had heard so many raves about was not offered as take out.
On the three occasions I visited the takeout section, the counterperson seemed a little surly when I queried him about the takeout offerings.
Although the paninis are quite delicious with fillings like fig jam, duck confit and robiola cheese on Acme herb slab that was freshly pressed & heated on the panini grill, getting your food to go takes so long you would be better off eating in the restaurant, particularly if you are considering ordering something from the lunch menu.
Another time, I ordered the soup of the day and waited almost 30 minutes while the kitchen made it. It was fresh and tasty but the point of takeout food is to get it quickly and run out the door. Pastries & cakes are also offered to go, and your best bet if you want a quick bite.

Dinner at Spruce is a much better experience. Night time is definitely the right time to be here with it's sexy ambiance and moneyed hipster vibe. The service is professional if not exactly personable, the food is not spectacular or particularly memorable but it is a good, everchanging seasonal menu chock full of New American/Cal/Ital favorites but the pork tenderloin, duck and short ribs are staples and so are the not-to-be-missed, straight-from-the-oven palmiers for dessert.

The scene is the show and, if you can score a reservation, then by all means go; especially, if you have friends from Manhattan or L.A. to entertain. Just don't expect to be dazzled by the food or coddled by the waitstaff. Spruce is about Spruce, period.


The Entrance at California Street

Perbacco is a 1 year old Financial District restaurant with old San Francisco Barbary Coast appeal. With it's cloistered booths, narrow wooden tabletops, long counter seating, exposed brick walls & white-aproned servers, it fits right in with neighbors like the venerable Tadich Grill, opened circa 1846, except Perbacco's waiters are warmer if less efficient than Tadich Grill's crew and its finishes are obviously newer and shinier.

Chef/Owner Staffan Terje and owner Umberto Gibin are no newcomers to the Bay Area dining scene. Both have called it their home for over 20 years working and overseeing the dining of classic restaurants like the storied Ernie's, Piati, Il Fornaio, Scala's Bistro, Fifth Floor, Masa's & Splendido. They draw their inspirations from Piemonte and Liguria using ingredients purchased from small growers featured at the nearby Ferry Building Farmers Market.

The Bar at Perbacco

View of the Kitchen through the Dining Room

You can enjoy light tasty tapas-style meals with their clean-flavored crudo dishes like Hamachi with a shaved fennel bulb salad that's dressed with olive oil & blood orange essence; or salumi dishes featuring house-cured meats from pork loin, lamb, duck & pork shoulder; and then there are lusty appetizers like the salty Brandacujun (salt cod & potato gratin) on a toasty crostini or creamy Burrata with tangy marinated peppers and white anchovy served with a peppery arugula.

You can, also, make a night of it and immerse yourself in the simple pleasures of the Tajarin, a delicate housemade pasta with a slow cooked pork and porcini sugo or the Parpardelle in a short rib ragu with golden chanterelles.
The beauty of this menu is that they offer the pastas and risottos as either small plates or entrees so that you can partake in their standout meat courses after a pasta course without spontaneously combusting.
The first time I dined at Perbacco there was a tremendous caramel-nutty milk-braised pork shoulder in all its gelatinous glory with pancetta-inflected cabbage and celery root puree. It's a dish that I have since added to my own repertoire that's how much it impressed me. Steak, fish, duck all get a beautiful treatment with sauces and sides changing with the season. Great vegetarian and pescetarian options abound in all areas of the menu unless you're a vegan. I mean it's Northern Italian, after all. Dairy reigns supreme.

Service has been friendly if a little uneven but the food is so comforting that all is forgiven once it does arrive. On our first visit two weeks after the opening, a few intermezzo courses were MIA as was the bottle of champagne our friends brought. Oops! We were never charged for the missing courses and the missing champagne which was accidentally served to another table was replaced with a wine of equal value. No harm, no foul. Service has since improved.

The crowd is not drop dead glamorous but they are vibrant and sophisticated urbanites who know a good thing when they see it. Perbacco will be around for a longtime but that doesn't mean you should wait to try it. Reservations are tough to come by but you can always get served at the bar. Go after work for a quick bite & a drink at the bar or log on to and enjoy comfort food like your mom never made unless she was from Torino.


Dining Room at Mamacita

This Marina newcomer has been around for over a year but I don't care. Mamacita's food is the closest thing I've had to true Mexican food which is a rich tapestry of cultural influences from it's indigenous people to it's European conquerors. Great Mexican cuisine is fresh and complex using all five flavor sensations of sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami. Mamacita is a gourmand's dream in a casually swank setting. I don't want to sound like Rick Bayless-lite so I'll end the lecture here: Go to Mamacita and see what you've been missing. Chef Sam Josi cooked at the Slanted Door, enough said.

The Bar at Mamacita

The decor is Mexican fiesta without the kitsch and all the fun. The crowd is an eclectic mix but gets younger (& louder) as the night grows older. The bar scene is particularly vibrant. One evening we arrived at 6pm to a slightly congested area; by the time we left, they were 6 deep at the bar.

The Back Tables at Mamacita

I am not going to tell you what to order. Just close your eyes, spin the menu on the table & order whatever your finger lands on but you'll have to have everyone at your table do it at least twice because the menu is immense and every option is delectable. Better yet, put yourself in the hands of the experts. The waitstaff is knowledgeable and know how to pace the meals. I will say the albondigas (meatballs made with chipotle and posole that dissolve on your tongue), tuna tartare (with pipian, mango, avocado in a chipotle-agave nectar emulsion & yucca chips are a much welcome Mexican twist on the classic) & chilaquiles (gotta get something with the housemade chips) were big hits at our table as were the baja-style mahimahi tacos and the pan-seared dayboat scallops anointed with a red mole cream.

Let me also give you this advice: Go early, bring friends who like to eat & are not concerned with being heard when they speak because the noise level is deafening. Try to get a table in the back (we ate under the palapa); you'll have more room and more privacy. Make sure to have the margaritas; they are made with fresh limes & excellent tequila. They are no margarita mixes allowed here. Chef Josi believes in seasonal organic and sustainable foods only and his militancy works in your favor. The prices are higher than your favorite taqueria but this is not your average little neighborhood taqueria; it is the best bargain in town for the quality of food served and worth every penny.

Those are my top '07 San Francisco newcomers but I haven't tried SPQR which is a no reservations Roman joint from the A-16 crew on Fillmore Street that has gotten HUGE buzz.
Am also intending to check out Laiola, a tiny Spanish tapas place on Chestnut, which has been opened several months longer than SPQR but a tiny place on Chestnut Street in the Marina is only for the most intrepid; my trips to Mamacita notwithstanding.
Sens, the new Mediterranean/Middle Eastern in the former home of the much missed Splendido (which morphed into the strangely named Monte Cristo) is something I'm also looking forward to try soon as well as ...
Ubuntu, the name of Manresa & Rubicon alum chef Jeremy Fox's vegetarian restaurant/yoga studio in Napa. Well, that ends my Tales of this City.

It is a far far better thing that I do than I have ever done......

Chapter 2: I want to be part of it......New York, New York...

Disclaimer: This 2007 round-up of New York restaurants isn't a review of the latest openings. With the exception of Ian Schrager's charming Gramercy Park Hotel's Private Roof Club and Garden and its over-hyped-don't-bother-unless-you're-a-masochist-from-Queens Rose Bar and Jade Bar, we didn't eat at any restaurant that opened this year. My most recent trip to the New York area was last week but we were there only 1 full day to attend my mother-in-law's funeral services and it didn't include tablehopping.

In reading the NY food blogs and publications, I have tried to keep up with the scene & the trends.

San Francisco's small plate revolution, which started about 7 or 8 years back when Chef Luke Sung's Isa opened & boldly served a menu filled with exquisitely made small plates meant to be shared by the table, has finally hit Manhattan like a tornado.

As has Berkeley professor Michael Pollan's local & sustainable eating call to arms.

Space being even more of a premium in Manhattan than it is in San Francisco, small joints that emphasize copious quantities of delicious, earthy foods in an unfussy atmosphere are also de rigeur; something that has long been embraced by the Bay Area eating public.

As has been the case in San Francisco, winebars are sprouting like weeds all over the city with the most highly anticipated one being Daniel Boulud's Boulud Bar.

Dinner as theatre is not dead in NY, it's just taking a little siesta.

When we went the first week in October, we didn't go to Momofuku's Ssam Bar, Insieme or Sfloglia. I'll save those for my next visit. We visited a few New York blue chips and relatively newer establishments, the kind that most visitors are likely to try in order to get that upscale, quintessentially NY experience (see how selfless I am, I'm always thinking of you, dear reader). Some of which met and exceeded expectations, some of which underperformed and were surprisingly disappointing.

Here are the most notable:

Wines by the glass, an excellent way to go if you're at the bar

We couldn't get a reservation for Top Chef's Tom Collichio's Craft, so I thought we would try another outpost of Chef Collicchio's evergrowing empire, the more relaxed yet carefully crafted Flatiron district Craftbar.

The name is an apt one since Craftbar definitely has a modern saloon vibe with its enormous bar up front. The scene is young, the decor is spare with white cloths thrown over narrow wooden tables for a little more evening glamour, simple wooden chairs, Riedel (or were they Spieglau?) stemware, and the enormous elevated wine cellar somehow stealing center stage from the floor above the bar. It feels more like a cafeteria than a restaurant and that may be the design team's intent. The ambiance is as casual as it gets for it's intended demographic, deep-pocketed wanna-be hipsters and saavy diners who appreciate homey bar food of the highest quality for reasonable prices.

The chef de cuisine is Brooklyn native, Phillipe Besson, a CIA graduate and alum of such luminaries as Gotham Bar and Grill under Alfred Portale and Gramercy Tavern where he met Tom Colicchio and eventually joined him in 2006 at Craftbar.

Craftbar Dining Room at Lunch

When I say bar food, don't start thinking of the salted peanuts, burgers, and corned beef sandwiches you find as the grub in your corner pub. While Craftbar does offer sandwiches (how could they not they have 'Witchcraft in their blood), they would be more in the order of Duck Prosciutto with Tallegio and Hen of the Woods mushrooms, Coppa ham with Buffalo Mozzarella or Pancetta with Fried Egg and spiced pepper relish which is the nicest fried egg & bacon sandwich you're likely to eat and all for the bargain basement price of $10 a sandwich.

In lieu of salted peanuts, Craftbar offers Marinated Olives and Marcona Almonds ($6), Pecorino-stuffed Risotto Balls ($7), Chickpea fritters with Black Olive Aioili ($7) or Salt Cod Croquettes with Romesco Aioli ($7) to satisfy your salt needs and great with a cocktail while you peruse the menu and make your choices for wine and dinner.

Dinner at Craftbar

The Dinner menu offers first courses and main courses that are studded with Italian accents.
Along with the aforementioned tapas-style starters, many of which you can easily make a meal out of, there is Warm Pecorino Fondue with Acacia Honey, Hazelnuts and Pepperoncini as silkily seductive as it sounds. The Calamari with Arugula and Lemon Confit featured hot, crisp, tender morsels of calamari on a bed of peppery arugula served with the lemony sauce to dip into. Simple but yummy and hearty for the weary traveler (we ate there after flying in from San Francisco earlier that evening). The Baby Beets with Gorgonzola and Candied Walnuts is not exactly innovative but it is well composed and tasty. A nice variety of cheeses (Boucheron, Cabrales, Rebluchon, Morbier Affinage) and the now ubiquitous charcuterie plate with all the usual suspects also grace the menu but we didn't partake of them. Soups and bruschettas with seasonal ingredients round out the first course offerings.

Main courses were generous and that's a good thing because, unlike Woody Allen's classic joke about the old Jewish couple who complained about the food being horrible "and such small portions, too", Craftbar's entrees were good, surprisingly so. Two of our party had the Scottish Salmon with Flageolet Beans, Cavolo Nero. Tomato and Garlic Confit. The small tender beans and braised bitter Italian greens are a nice change from the lentils and spinach you see served with salmon in too many places and show that this kitchen does a little foraging in the Greenmarket for their ingredients. My Sauteed Skate with Baby Brussel Sprouts, Bacon and Apple said autumn to me more than any other dish I had in the city that week and it was no chore to scarf up all those tender delicious brussel sprouts with flecks of meaty bacon and sweet apples. The hubby went for pasta and was not disappointed, Orecchiette with Cauliflower, Fennel Sausage and Parmesan had well integrated flavors and enough sauce for those little ears to soak up.

The service was both friendly and proficient. Our server was extremely attractive, replete with nubile young physique, interesting tats, Australian accent and a desire to please. What more can a girl ask for?

There were beaucoup wines by the glass, as well as the requisite cocktails with menacing names (I'm not a cocktail person, I'm strictly oenolicious) and beers. We ordered a bottle of Krug Rose NV from the fairly impressive winelist with a large selection of varietals from most of the more popular winemaking regions. Markups were not insane but the usual double the retail price with a bottle of 750ml 1996 Pol Rogers Cuvee Winston Churchill going for $385 at the restaurant when you can purchase a magnum of the same for $399.

I think you can see the trend here: food that is well-executed, familiar and accessible with good seasonal ingredients and an occasional trendy riff on a classic theme to make the diner feel that the kitchen isn't sleepwalking their way through the meal. This is not WD-50 and it doesn't want to be. Prices are fairly reasonable and the service is good.

When you need a reliable place to meet & eat after work, shopping or a long day of travel, Craftbar fits the bill.

Starters are $6-$11
Entrees are $10-$23
Cheeses are $4 each
Charcuterie are $10 each, $20 for an assortment

Since its inception in 1994, Gramercy Tavern has enjoyed the status conferred upon very few Manhattan eateries; one of irreproachable reputation for all that is best and brightest in metropolitan gastronomy and hospitality. It rises high in the stratosphere looking down upon its fellow competitors and enjoying plaudit after plaudit from a grateful public that comprises of restaurant critics and lay folk, alike, who lay their checkbooks and credit cards humbly at its feet like ancient greek supplicants making offerings to the high gods at their temples.

I left Manhattan in 1993 and though I have visited the place of my birth periodically since the move, I always stayed uptown and somehow just found it too difficult to get to the Gramercy Park area until our visit in October when we planned our stay at the newly refurbished Gramercy Park Hotel. Needless to say, I tried like crazy from San Francisco to book the Tavern (after first securing my reservation to Le Bernardin, of course) but to no avail, despite keeping the timetable flexible. So we left for NY with no reservation but we were waitlisted for a Sunday night at 8pm. I booked Daniel Boulud's Cafe Boulud for that night instead, since I knew the weather would be nice and I thought we could enjoy a walk along 5th Avenue after dinner before cabbing it to the hotel.

As luck would have it, Gramercy Tavern had an opening and was confirmed by our concierge Sunday afternoon for 8pm that night. I immediately canceled Cafe Boulud and grew very excited to finally experience what was universally considered a dining nirvana. Granted ye ole Tavern had suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune since Tom Colicchio's departure in late 2006; but. Frank Bruni's relatively recent review in June gave me reason for hope.

Can you tell where this is leading, my culinary clairvoyants?

View into Gramercy Tavern from 20th Street

As we entered the restaurant and approached the hostess stand, we were visually bombarded by colorful murals of pastoral scenes and Frankenstein-sized produce. There were jurassic sized floral arrangements in terra cotta planters. The ceilings were high, the lanterns were huge. We had entered the tavern area of the restaurant where the bar was abuzz & small wooden tables were jammed with smiling, chattering people eating & drinking. The atmosphere was all at once vibrant, relaxed and convivial. "Nice!", that's what I thought as I took it all in. Nothing too rarefied or precious; it all just looked like good fun. As I learned, a different more casual a la carte menu is offered in this section of Gramercy Tavern's restaurant.

After a stage wait of ten minutes or so, we were shown to our table by a congenial hostess who navigated our way through the more casual tavern room into the center of the elegant main dining room where we were seated at our very centrally located table.

The Main Dining Room at Gramercy Tavern

The room was very elegant in that rustic French country estate way. Ancestral portraits graced the walls (who claimed these ancestors was not clear). An enormous iron chandelier loomed overhead. The tables were lavishly appointed with crisp linens, silver and crystal. Towering archways & niches outfitted with heavy parterre styled draperies and wooden transoms with open grille-work created dramatic wall treatments and entryways into the room.

So the setting is lovely, the wait staff was professional and our table captain was friendly, knowledgeable and casual without being sloppy or cavalier. In fact, I felt like I had been transported to Napa Valley where any number of the better restaurants have this kind of atmosphere and service except French Laundry whose servers are much less likely to engage in desultory chit chat. Not to say that our servers were without enthusiasm, on the contrary our table captain was particularly animated, but some of the staff answered questions or made comments in a slightly off-handed manner.

Now we get to the food. Frankly, it was an uninspired effort by this kitchen. Michael Anthony is the executive chef and had large shoes to fill when Colicchio left but I never tasted Chef Colicchio's food so, as far as I was concerned, this kitchen was free from the stigma that accompanies being compared to a much treasured memory.

The menu is a prefixe that costs $82 with only two courses offered, one starter and one entree. Dessert and cheese is offered on a separate menu. There is a six course tasting menus including dessert offered at $110 per person and a 6 course vegetarian menu that includes dessert at $88 per person but they must be ordered by the entire table and our table of 4 wasn't interested.

When you charge an average of $41 a course, those courses need to be spectacular with ingredients that are luxurious with marvelous presentations. They weren't. They were as well-executed as you would expect them to be at a restaurant of this caliber; but, they lacked the wow factor that the price and the reputation of Gramercy Tavern tacitly promise.

We were served an amuse bouche but, frankly, the taste we were offered escapes me.

Then came our first courses:

Tuna & Beet Tartare with Radish and Hazelnuts started my meal. The ahi was fresh as were the beets and there was an abundance of them carefully molded onto the plate. The knife work was clean & precise: each cube of fish, nut & root vegetable an entity onto itself, clearly distinguishable from it neighbor but that is all you can say for it. Technically proficient but lacking in interesting flavor or contrasting textures. The flavors did not meld into an integrated whole. After one bite I wanted something else, not because it was terrible but because it was boring. The hazelnuts and radishes were overwhelmed by the density of tuna and beets and could not provide the crunch and oomph that this dish so badly needed.
This was a fairly pedestrian dish I could have found served in any restaurant. Unfortunately, three of the four of us ordered it. Maybe I should have tried the sweetbreads or the torchon of foie gras for an extra $10 instead.

My hubby, in his infinite wisdom, went with the Handmade Parpardelle with Beef Ragu and Scallions. The fresh pasta provided a nice canvas for the succulent meaty sauce, and, overall, the dish itself had well-integrated flavors with green onions providing a nice punch to the sauce. Once again any good trattoria worth its salt could have provided a similar start.

Then came the entrees:
Our friends, both pescetarians, had the Mushroom Ravioli with Wild Mushrooms and Balsamic Vinegar. The ravioli were filled with a creamy mushroom duxelle of undefinable provenance and the dish was finished with some porcinis and chanterelles with a drizzle of aged balsamic; all of it in a pool of beurre blanc. It was fine but not thrilling, another good trattoria special not an entree worthy of a restaurant that has been the recipient of one Michelin Star.

Here is the most disappointing part of the experience: I cannot remember what Garrett or I had as our entrees. I remember thinking mine was fine, well-seasoned, decently-executed but whether it was meat, fish or fowl remains a mystery to me. Same goes for Garrett's entree.

Normally, I could wax poetic over say a slice of hamachi I had two years ago in some sushi dive in Phoenix because I was so enthralled with it I will replay the sensations I felt when I ate it everytime I eat another piece of hamachi using the comparison to retain a memory of the paragon; thus, the memory of what I was enjoying usually stays alive long after I've eaten it. However, I am drawing a huge blank over Gramercy Tavern's main course which is an indication of the mediocrity of that offering. So I can't comment on my second course other than to say it was not memorable hence the disappointment.

Only one of the party opted for dessert, a selection of housemade ice creams featuring chocolate.

For my dessert, I had a glass of 1993 Chateau Pajzos Tokaji Aszu 5 Puttonyos, a Hungarian dessert wine I've enjoyed many times. It came from a world class wine list that is both extensive and impressive in its breadth of wines offered by both the bottle and the glass.. The vintages are relatively young for many of the age-worthy reds but I imagine it would be quite expensive to stock the cellar with '82 bordeauxs and '85 barbarescos. Wines by the glass come in two pours 3 oz and 6 oz unless it's champagne in which case it is 3 oz and 5 oz. The wine list also offers several bottle formats including magnums as well as single malt scotches, anejo tequilas, rums, bourbon and ryes for those who prefer their drinks to be free of fermented grapes.

They did send us home with a little gift from the kitchen, a light & tasty streusel topped muffin for breakfast the next morning.

The Gramercy Tavern offers a beautiful setting, service that is friendly and professional, and food that is well-executed but not memorable. If the kitchen from Craftbar (or Garibaldi's in San Francisco) had catered this meal you would have been hard pressed to notice the difference in anything but price. Which should be no surprise since Phillipe Besson of Craftbar once manned the stove at Gramercy Tavern in its heyday under Tom Colicchio.

It costs twice as much at Gramercy Tavern as it would have at other establishments that serve the same kind of rustic food. It's a great neighborhood place not a destination restaurant and, unlike the similarly revered Le Bernardin, it does not warrant the prices charged for the privilege of dining there. Nor should it require an act of God to get a reservation there, though I could see why there would be a wait at the bar area. Winebars and their ilk are hot, hot, hot.

Here is my major objection to this restaurant and why I will never return unless it is to eat in the casual Tavern room: Gramercy Tavern offers no value for your money. Unless, of course, you're main objective in dining out is to assist Danny Meyer make his rent payments. Now in fairness to the kitchen, I only ate there the one time and the food was fine and maybe the tasting menu would have given me a better idea of the scope of this kitchen but not every patron wants to commit to 6 courses. Michael Anthony & co. would have to completely overhaul the menu and probably cut into their profit margin to convince me that the Dining Room at Gramercy Tavern is worth the trip. I doubt that pleasing me will motivate them to do that. They have already solidified their position with the purported culinary cognoscenti.

How could Frank Bruni and so many Zagat contributers be that misguided?
I should have gone to Cafe Boulud instead.


The Bar at Falai

Out in the middle of a yet to be gentrified Lower East Side block, there lies a small Italian eatery (with its own bakery next door) doing magical things inside a dollhouse-sized kitchen. Named after its chef/owner Iacopo Falai, longtime pastry chef at Le Cirque 2000, this slice of Florence is a culinary Cinderella.

Dining Room at Falai

Transformed from a tiny greeting card shop along a still gritty Clinton Street, the space is narrow but lined in gleaming white tiles and awash in light from several small crystal pendants that hang over the long marble bar bedecked with freshly baked breads from the kitchen's own hearth with barely enough room for the glass of prosecco you'll order while waiting for your table and you will be waiting to be seated, reservation notwithstanding. The tables themselves are scaled to fit the space which means they are spacially-challenged unless you have the good fortune to snag the display table at the street front window where gangs of neighborhood kids out on a warm autumn night watch quizzically as you eat. It's an uptown crowd that eats here and it's most definitely not this neighborhood's joint.

Falai Restaurant
The spacious table by the window Chef/Owner Iacopo Falai

The place to eat in this restaurant is the outdoor patio, partially because you're eating under the stars and are afforded a bit more space than inside; and, partially because there is an Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window" perverse voyeuristic charm about eating in the alley between tenement houses where you can literally see how the other half lives as you scarf down your buffalo ricotta flan. It was one of the most interesting, only-in-New York moments of my dinner at Falai because, despite all evidence seemingly to the contrary, there is something almost ethereal about this setting. It's an aspect about this dining experience that no reviewer ever seems to mention, oddly enough. It's as if they were all discharged with guarding some well kept secret.

The Outdoor Patio, magical at night

The service can be what I'll call downtown surly.

While the young ladies who deliver the not-to-be-missed housebaked breads, drinks and other gifts from the kitchen, don't exactly chuck these items at you, you can see that they'd consider doing it. When you query them about menu items, they ignore you as though they were too busy contemplating what clubs they were going to later that night to answer your idiotic questions.

Our table captain, Juan, on the other hand, like Chef Falai is a former alumnus of Le Cirque and quite a character with a font of knowledge about worldly affairs, as well as a well-seasoned globetrotter and all-around bon vivant with whom I would have enjoyed sharing a bottle of wine sometime. His concern about the pace of dinner was not all that it could have been but I doubt that very much ever disturbs this man's natural sang froid.

The food itself was very good. Starting with the hot freshly baked breads and then an amuse of shimmering nairagi sashimi with fried shallots, an avocado aioli and meyer lemon dressing that seemed like it was flown in directly from Laurent Manrique's Aqua.

The menu was loaded with a variety of pastas "fatto en casa" with standouts being the Saffron Parpardelle served with an amazingly meaty local chicken mushroom, ricotta and fig puree; the Gnudi, a light "naked" spinach ricotta ravioli filling that floats in a simple sauce of brown butter with a foamy cream and garnished with fried sage; and the Farfalle, a cocoa flavored bowtie pasta with crawfish and chives, successfully combined the idea of sweet and the savory though, of course, the pasta was far from sweet just rich with deep cocoa flavor. Another triumph for the sweet savory contingent was the Buffalo Ricotta Flan with smoked raisins and pine nuts. The flan's texture was more pudding-like than eggy, thank goodness, and the inherent richness of the dish was cut by the pleasant almost imperceptible tang that the buffalo milk imparts to its products. It was served with a garnish of wilted bitter green salad .

Main course highlights were the Vitello, tender veal rib chop & loin with a quince puree served with a melt in your mouth potato fondant & hearty kale. The Merluzzo, line-caught cod that was wrapped in pancetta and roasted which both crisped up the bacon and kept the firm white flesh tender yet meaty; the sides imparted both color and heft to the dish with mashed blue potatoes, roasted red pepper coulis and beautifully sculptural romanesco cauliflower. The Risotto with Pan-seared Scallops whose meaty centers retained their translucency was a very satisfying dish with its creamy rice and high tech sprinkling of intensely flavored tomato powder.

The wine menu was Italo-centric but still offered an excellent variety within those parameters. We started with a prosecco, worked our way through Gaja 's excellent '00 chardonnay and then a nice brunello from the '99 vintage, all chosen by my personal sommelier, the hubby.

Silly people that we were we attempted to skip dessert. A bad decision considering the provenance of our chef but our incredible waiter Juan refused to allow us to leave without sampling the chef's considerable pastry skills, so he very generously brought our table the beautiful and classic Profiteroles with it's light as air marsala mousse and warm Valrhona dark chocolate sauce, all with his compliments. Kudos to Juan & Chef Falai for their stellar hospitality. Now if they could only get those girls to smile a little....

All told, it was a very unique setting with tasty food that blends renaissance-like flavors with high tech cooking techniques making Falai a completely enjoyable dining experience. When you go try to sit outside and get a table with Juan for his food savvy, subtly wise-cracking humor.

Oh and don't forget to order dessert.

Le Bernardin

I have already reviewed this visit which you can find in the blog's archives. As I stated earlier in the post, it was my top meal of 2007. What else can I say? That's all folks!

No comments: